In December 2020, Melanie Memea was made redundant from a job she thought she’d be in until she retired.

As a long-haul flight attendant for Air New Zealand, Memea loved her job and felt helpless as she watched COVID-19 decimate her industry and, of course, millions of lives around the world.

But rather than staying mad, Memea found a way to get even, and it has changed her life.

“Myself and thousands of other airline staff lost our livelihoods almost overnight due to this virus, so when it came to seeking another industry it made sense to me to contribute to the fight against COVID-19,” she says.

“I wanted to be part of the solution, part of rebuilding what COVID-19 took away. So I signed on as an Observer at one of the earliest mass-vaccination sites, a role which involves monitoring patients and answering their questions, post-vaccination. Two years on, I am still here and loving it.”

Memea was drawn to the role partly because it aligned with her previous one – as an airline attendant she spent her time looking after a wide range of people, some of whom felt anxious or unsure. Helping people feel at ease in a challenging environment came naturally to her.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding working at vaccination centres – I have moved from being an Observer to a Site Lead, overseeing a team of up to 50 workers.

“Whether it’s packing up to shift centre locations with a few days’ notice, or unpacking and distributing thousands of RATs, or adjusting to new vaccine offerings such as boosters and paediatric vaccines, the people I work with are adaptable, resilient and resourceful.

“Everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets things done – it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”

With the initial demand for vaccinations now slowing, Memea and her team now run the RATs distribution centre at The Cloud in Downtown Auckland.

Memea says nothing compares to the early days of the vaccine rollout.

“For several weeks, at our busiest time, we had two campervans and a car that were able to travel and meet people to get vaccinated,” she says.

“We were at Mt Eden Prison every week, we saw people in their homes if necessary, we visited domestic violence shelters, and we’d park up near where homeless food distribution was happening, to offer the street community an easily accessible option. We were able to go where we were needed.”

Memea had been working on international flights for sixteen years when she was made redundant, and still says that flying is her dream – she and many other former colleagues are part of a pool of airline staff who may get recalled, now that borders are opening and flights increasing.

“My time in the vaccination space has been hugely valuable and I think that when I go back to flying, I will take some important learnings with me,” Memea says.

“Firstly, I’ll appreciate the luxury and privilege of the job – compared to how hard I’ve watched our health teams work for two years, I’ll have a new appreciation for ‘work’ being a five-day trip to San Francisco!

“And secondly, after leading a big team, I think I’ll be more confident in pursuing leadership opportunities in the future. While I never would have imagined it, my journey has taken me from dream job, to redundancy, to a life-changing role, and I have a whole new view of the world.”